Backlogvania Review: Xenogears

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Welcome to Backlogvania

Join me each month as I tackle one game from my backlog, try to complete it in a month, and then tell you if it’s worth playing now, leaving in your backlog, or skipping completely. Not that my opinion means anything, but you’re here. You have now entered the daunting, and traitorous world of Backlogvania!

This month’s game is…

Game: Xenogears

System: Sony PlayStation

Released: 1998

Publisher: SquareSoft

Notable Creatives: Tetsuya Takahashi (Director), Yasunori Mitsuda (Composer)

Metacritic Score: 84

Duration in my backlog: 21 years, 7 months, 7 days excluding (yes, I calculated this)

Additional writing and editing: Joseph McBride

History Lesson

Xenogears may be simultaneously the most interesting and bizarre game in the ‘90s JRPG landscape. Reception to this game is all over the place, so you’ll be hard-pressed to find two people who agree completely on its overall quality. Some consider it a flawed masterpiece while others will say it’s just a middle of the road PlayStation era JRPG in a time when JRPGs were flexing big time with titles like Final Fantasy VII and… uh… Final Fantasy VII. One thing everyone can certainly agree on though – Xenogears is NOT Final Fantasy VII. Even though it almost was?

In what is bound to be the most interesting part of this history lesson, Xenogears was almost created as the game we know today called Final Fantasy VII. Rather, it was supposed to be. Initially, Tetsuya Takahashi and his wife Kaori Tanaka (aka Soraya Saga) submitted the project that would ultimately become Xenogears as a plot idea for what would become arguably the most popular JRPG ever made. Though after learning that the themes were too dark for SquareSoft’s most important franchise, the couple was given permission to re-purpose their idea into a new game. After an attempt to re-work their idea into a sequel for Chrono Trigger also fell through, the duo ultimately deciding to build their own intellectual property. Thus, Xenogears.

Indeed, Xenogears’ biggest flaw may be that it simply wasn’t either of its contemporaries despite drawing heavy influence from both. However, the next Cloud Strife’s-sword-sized pill that needed swallowing was localization. It’s one thing when SquareSoft says your game about deicide is too controversial to be a Final Fantasy entry, it’s another thing entirely to try to get that game shipped over to American audiences without significant changes – especially considering how uptight Americans get any time the Japanese try to send over anything with religious undertones in their exported children’s toys. Needless to say, the whole “killing God” thing didn’t go over well initially and almost caused Xenogears to not get a release stateside… 

Xenogears Religion Theme
“Maybe if we keep the religious themes in Xenogears subtle, the US won’t notice…”

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and after two years of development Xenogears was released in its entirety, never to be criticized for being an incomplete game. *Checks notes* complete-ish is probably a better way to describe the final product that is Xenogears. As you may already know if you’ve played Xenogears, or as you may come to read if you haven’t, it is far from a complete game with the second disc feeling very disjointed, rushed, and seemingly like a shell of the rest of the game. But what happened to the production of the second disc?

Many fans have cited the theory that the development team ran out of time and/or money to complete Xenogears as originally envisioned. Perhaps a more significant factor is that the team lacked the experience to match the scope of their incredibly ambitious game and story they truly wanted – as well as running out of time/money. The second disc was a compromise that allowed the creative team to finish the game, although not the way they wanted, without ending with the first disc and having to hope for a sequel they weren’t guaranteed to get. What does this mean for the final game? While Xenogears’ first disc is an incredible bit of storytelling told through a dense, and layered JRPG filled with exploration, combat, and a sprawling narrative, the second disc is a lot more storytelling through exposition only and the occasional gameplay bits that are really only shadows of the core game you just spent the previous 40 hours playing.

Ultimately the final product that is Xenogears is a highly ambitious, narratively deep, ludicrously long, and largely incomplete PlayStation era JRPG that isn’t as visually impressive as other titles of the era. But let’s talk about the true question after twenty-two years – should you play this game now, keep it in the backlog, or skip it entirely?

Let’s dive into Xenogears!

Title screen for Xenogears
“Xenogears designers: Let’s make this logo family friendly…”
Also Xenogears designers: “Hey, what’s the HEX color code for BLOOD!?”

Journey to the Backlog

The story of how Xenogears got to my backlog isn’t interesting as why it happened to stay there for 22 years, but we’ll get there. It’s 1997 ish and in September of that year I had turned 13 as many of the 13-year-olds I knew were wont to do, I had spent the last year making a decision that would have more of an impact on my life than almost any other: do I want a Nintendo 64 or the Sony PlayStation? I chose PlayStation and became the weird one in my friend group. I’ve still never recovered, obviously.

With my jump to Sony’s new console, it was time to find some games to play and the Need for Speed IIs and Pizza Hut demo discs of the world simply weren’t cutting it. Moreover, I really wanted to take advantage of the library of more mature titles to be found on my fancy new system and there didn’t seem a better place to start than JRPGs. While my SNES had given me my first taste of the JRPG world with Earthbound and Super Mario RPG (still two of my favorite games of all time) I really had no clue what I was getting myself into with the real shit that was SquareSoft JRPGs. 

As stated above, Final Fantasy VII had already revealed its mighty FMV 3D-visuals and its epic narrative, but something about it didn’t appeal to me at the time. Instead, I was drawn to the visual style and mechs in the previews I had seen for Xenogears, not really knowing what it was all about but knowing that I liked it, aesthetically at least. So I took a flyer and asked for Xenogears for Christmas in 1998 and… I got it. That’s the story, I guess. 

My personal original copy of Xenogears
This is one of the oldest CIB games I own. As a collector, it’s one of my favorite items. As a game backlogger, one of my biggest casualties. Until now.

But that doesn’t explain why it sat in my backlog for so long which is kind of the entire point of this whole thing, isn’t it; to put it simply, I ran out of time and patience. In my initial playthrough 22 years ago, I got stuck on a certain boss battle, probably at around the 25 hour mark and this discouraged me for a bit… like 5 or so years. But I swore I would come back to and eventually I did, but this process would come with a cost.

By the time I started Xenogears back up again, I was so far behind and had forgotten where I was in the narrative that I simply decided to start over and play the game in its entirety from the beginning. This process would ultimately repeat itself at least 4 times in the last two decades. I would start the game, get stuck/caught up with life, shelve it, and then return only to forget where I was and start over; rinse and repeat every 5 years or so. It wasn’t until 2020 that I learned I could play the game on my recently acquired PS Vita console and play it on my couch! Finally! No more excuses… I would finally finish Xenogears after 22 years but this time with some added motivation!

Xenogears was a huge inspiration for Backlogvania. So, it was only natural that it be one of my oldest unfinished games in this very early project. And I did it. I finished it. It’s done. It always will be. But now it’s time for me to determine if the juice is worth the 22-year squeeze and I feel may be an impossible task when remembering to comb through the nostalgic feelings I have for it. But, let’s take a drink and see… let’s review Xenogears.

Game Review

**Warning: This section will contain spoilers for Xenogears. You’ve been warned… look, I realize the point of this series is to potentially convince people to play these games but if you are trying to avoid spoilers for a 22-year-old game then I don’t know what you’re even doing here.**

Xenogears takes place in the very distant future (or maybe the past, it’s kind of vague on these details) where a war has been waging on the continent of Ignas between two nations: Aveh and Kislev. During the time of the conflict, a religious group known as Ethos began unearthing ancient, giant mechs called Gears and began using these Gears in the ongoing conflict in an attempt to turn the tide of the war. Along comes a mysterious army called Gebler that  wants to assist Aveh to help them win the war, but Gebler’s motivations to help Aveh we soon learn are sinister. Gebler is controlled by an evil emperor and an A.I. collective called the Gazel Ministry who live in a floating country called Shevat with a goal of dominating the land dwellers below while on a quest to resurrect God.

To say the overarching plot of Xenogears is complicated is like saying Cloud’s sword in FFVII is only a little impractical. And that’s just the backstory! When you actually get to play the game you control Fei Fong Wong who is an amnesiac because of course he is, this is a JRPG after all. Fei he has been living his life in a quiet village, painting away, not knowing where he comes from or who he is. This is until the conflict between Aveh and Kislev lands in Fei’s village. This particular conflict centers around a new, powerful, and mysterious stolen gear known as Weltall. 

 

In an effort to save the people of his village, Fei pilots Weltall and fends off both armies. Unfortunately, Fei loses control and blacks out in a rage when he witnesses his friends get gunned down by an enemy gear. The power Fei unleashes destroys his village and turns most of the villagers into kindling in the process. Over the next 50 hours, we learn eventually that Fei has incredible hidden power and a connection to not only this mysterious Gear he pilots, but the soldier, Elly, who was tasked to retrieve it. Hilarity ensues.

Xenogears is certainly a deep game thematically, dealing with subjects like religion, man’s relationship to God, children’s relationships with their parents, and societal issues like xenophobia, racism, and classism. It was a heavy game for its era, which isn’t to say that games from the PlayStation lacked depth; there are plenty of PlayStation era games that discuss deep themes in their stories, but there were also three games where you play as a marsupial fighting a voodoo mask so, you tell me what sold more toys.

Guys, I really thought Crash Bandicoot was for kids. That’s… that’s my bad…

Xenogears’ story is ambitious, bordering on over complicated. Even with my most recent playthrough, I still don’t fully understand the story as well as I’d like. But being complicated is fine because, for the most part, it is a story filled with characters who you care about and want to succeed. Each character is incredibly unique visually and statistically along with having their own stories and motivations that are interesting and easy to empathize with independently from the larger overarching narrative. For the first three-quarters of the game, you are invested in these characters because the game lets you be invested.

The Infamous Second Disc

I mentioned earlier how disc 2 feels like a rush job where the creators either ran out of resources and had to cram the remaining elements of the story into the second disc and that’s all very true. Does it dramatically change the quality of the game when shifting from the first disc to the second? Your mileage may vary. For a game that is probably 45-50% exposition anyway, I’m not sure how much worse it is to change from a normal setting to a literal still image of the narrator sitting in a chair telling us the story like fucking Cranky Kong… I’m not kidding. See for yourself.

Xenogears disc 2
“When I was your age, JRPGs were all called Final Fantasy and that was it!”

While the story told in disc 2 is very much Exposition Overload 2: Electric Boogaloo, you would think that all characters get their chance to shine but that simply isn’t the case. Arguably the largest flaw that disc 2 has is introducing entirely new characters with almost no real fanfare. As an example, at one point you’re introduced to a character named Esmerelda who was created the second incarnation of our main character, Fei but after she’s introduced and accessible as a party member, she has almost nothing to do with the rest of the story. 

This forgotten fate is true for most of the character’s not named Fei and Ellie. Disc 2 becomes almost entirely focused on the two main characters, Fei and Ellie, which… it probably should? But, after spending so many hours investing in characters like Citan, Rico, and Billy it is quite frustrating just ignoring them like they are the third, fourth, and fifth wheels on a standard bicycle. It feels like either a missed opportunity to include more of these other characters in the game’s climax, or a waste having spent so much time with them when they have almost no bearing on the overall game other than adding diversity to your party.

Disc 2 is disappointing, to say the least. It makes up the final 25% of the game. Of that 25% about 15% is pure exposition, 5% is battle sequences and the remaining 5% is bullshit platforming and puzzle solving. By the time you’re at disc 2 you’re either super invested in the story or smashing the X button like you think if you keep smashing X you’ll win a prize. I was somewhere in the middle – wanting to know where the story goes but ultimately frustrated that a game that was already so story focused became a literal storytelling session. Much like how the best stories in film are shown, not told, a good video game should be able to do the same and the last quarter of Xenogears focuses more on tell, not show and it’s frustrating to think about what could have been.

Speaking of Battle Focused…

Let’s talk about the battle system. Xenogears suffers from some wicked cases of ‘random encounters’ and ‘needing to grind’ but both of those issues are made up for with one of my favorite battle systems in any JRPG. The battle system here is built around chaining moves and finishers called ‘deathblows.’ Each round provides you with points based on your character’s level and these points can be used to perform various move combinations using light, medium and heavy attacks. Light attacks are worth 1 point, Medium attacks are worth 2 points and heavy attacks are worth 3 points. These attack moves can be used in any combination within your allotted points. Turns can also be used to use items, use magic attacks, call your Gear, or escape. 

Xeno battle
Fei to everyone else: “I feel like I’m the only one who took these auditions seriously.”

As you progress, the light, medium and heavy attack combinations, when repeated a set number of times, will become ‘Deathblows’ which unleash even more powerful, beautifully animated attacks. You can also save up attack points each turn and then unleash multiple Deathblows in a single turn which can be handy taking out certain boss characters. The battle system in Xenogears allows for a lot of flexibility to play how you want and the art and animation are wonderful to behold. Complicating things further, there’s also the Gear battle system. 

The Gear battle system, where you fight in the giant mechs, functions with the same ideas. Instead of attack points, your Gears have fuel on top of normal metrics like HP and EP and you need specific equipment to be able to repair Gear HP. Regaining fuel is a largely futile effort until late game. In a Gear battle you could theoretically have plenty of HP and EP, but run out of fuel and slowly see your HP trickle down. The Gear battle system adds a ton of meta to an already interesting fight system. If you’re a fan of turn-based JRPGs, Xenogears is definitely one you’ll want to check out as the battle system is by far the element that kept me coming back the most.

Gears battle
“Alright, it’s time to turn these gears!”

Outside of the Battle System

Xenogears gameplay is pretty standard JRPG stuff. Go someplace, look for someone or something, read a bunch of exposition, advance the story, win some battles, level up, fight a boss, more exposition, advance the story some more, rinse, repeat. Like similar games in the genre, Xenogears features a largely open world map that can be, more or less explored in its entirety. The larger overworld map has smaller locations that can be accessed throughout the game, and both the larger overworld map as well as hostile areas of the regular maps will feature random encounters with enemies.

Visually, Xenogears is pretty interesting. While many of its contemporaries had made the risky jump to 3D, Xenogears stayed comfortably in a hybrid visual approach with 3D backgrounds and environments filled with beautiful hand-drawn sprites. The characters are shown in an isometric layout and you can rotate the game world to get a full 360 view – although sometimes this camera system is better in theory than execution. When exploring or navigating through the towns, you’ll need to rotate the map to get to certain areas that may be obscured by the camera and there are some unusually placed platforming sections that require precision which are… frustrating.

In terms of design, nostalgia definitely has me feeling the love for how Xenogears looks. The art style and animations of the characters are great, but many of the sprites haven’t aged as well on these high resolution, modern devices available today. The portrait images of the characters are astoundingly beautiful and the designs of the characters, worlds, and Gears are a wonder to behold and I think they make up for the muddy looks of the rest of the visuals. 

As far as the rest of the presentation, Xenogears has cut-scenes in an anime art style with full-on voiceover work. The cut-scenes are very well done but too scant for them to truly factor in. The back of the box advertises that there are “over 20 minutes of stunning, hand-drawn anime” in Xenogears which, in reality, is only .66% of the total game. The use of the animation here I think is simply a microcosm of the level of ambition that the team who created Xenogears was working toward. It’s definitely nice to have and it makes up for some of the flaws – there just isn’t enough here to make it a selling point of why you should play the game.

Xenogears cut scene
Historical image of gamers in 1998 realizing how little of Xenogears is actually cut scenes.

Continuing with the presentation, Xenogears has some of the best music in any game I’ve ever played. Composed by Yasunori Mitsuda, the music and themes throughout are astounding and can easily lend to being listened to outside of playing the game. My only gripe with the music would be that it sometimes gets repetitive and some tracks are frequently reused. It’s almost like they ran out of time or money…

General Commentary, Trivia, and Credits

  • In the animated cut-scenes Fei is voiced by Brian Tochi, the actor who voiced Leonardo in the live-action TMNT movies. 
  • Yasunori Mitsuda was also responsible for the OST for Chrono Trigger. I think it’s connections and similarities are pretty clear when you hear them both.
  • Would you like to understand more of Xenogears story? Does it seem too complicated? Do you have $161 free dollars lying around? Do you speak Japanese… then boy do I have the Xenogears book for you: Perfect Works which is a book that explains how Xenogears fits into its own larger story, which leads into the next 
  • Borrowing heavily from Star Wars, Xenogears is actually the 5th episode of a 6 part series that we never saw the rest of because most of the creative team left SquareSoft to start Monolith Software and…
  • The founders of Monolith Software created two separate spiritual successors to Xenogears, the Xenosaga and Xenoblade series, respectively. Neither are directly connected to Xenogears, or each other, really – but some of the same themes and ideas carry over
  • Xenogears draws a lot of inspiration from German and Nordic culture. Bart’s ship is called the Yggdrasil, Fei’s gear is called Weltall, and Citan’s gears are named Heimdal and Fenrir, respectively…  
  • I was once again unable to capture my own screenshots, so all in-game captures I’ve used here are from user UnicornLynx from the website MobyGames.com – I could not get in touch with the user, so if you see this please don’t be mad and if you happen to come across this, I’d love to give you full credit

Verdict

I’ve spent more than half my life trying to successfully finish Xenogears. I think regardless of how good a game is, when it has that much hype and build-up, it can never truly live up to expectations. Ultimately, Xenogears will always have a special place in my heart since the first three quarters of the game are outstanding and worth every moment – but I’d be lying if I said that after 22 years that completion had met all of my longest held dreams of what this game could have been.

For JRPG fans, this a must-play, even if it’s just to experience the incredible music and battle systems. I think only the hardest of hardcore JRPG fans will get the true, full enjoyment out of Xenogears that it has to offer, but that doesn’t mean it’s without merit to recommend it to others. Though if you haven’t gotten around to it after 22 years, I wouldn’t blame you for holding out hope for a remaster or a remake. 

I’m definitely in the camp that feels that Xenogears is a flawed masterpiece, but I think its flaws are hard to ignore in spite of some of its best qualities. If you haven’t played it yet, don’t ignore it, but don’t rush to get to it.

Rating: Backlog it!

Backlogvania Verdict
Verdict: Backlog It

Final Thoughts and Next Game Up

I’ll be honest – life has been a little tough lately and getting time to game has been difficult, let alone writing about them. I know this piece was super long and I appreciate everyone who actually took the time to read through this lengthy, overdone story about a 22 year old game and some old geek’s lame journey to finish it.

The next game on the docket is The Messenger. One of my more recent games in my backlog and one that, 14 hours in, I’m finally hitting that stride of being addicted to. I hope you guys come back. Hopefully, I won’t have as much to say about The Messenger…